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Volume 29, Number 6
November/December 2013

Performance Assessments for the Common Core

Are students up to the task?


The Common Core will mean fewer “bubble tests” and more performance tasks that require analysis and reasoning.

This year’s seventh-graders in the Danville, Ky., Public Schools face a new set of requirements to graduate from high school. In order ato earn a “Danville Diploma,” the class of 2019 and beyond will have to complete a set of experiences, such as internships, and demonstrate a set of competencies, such as the ability to analyze, synthesize, and make inferences from data.

These expectations are aimed at ensuring that all students develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to succeed in the global economy and society, according to the superintendent, Carmen Coleman. The diploma will signify that students are prepared for life after high school, she says. By contrast, the traditional system, driven largely by conventional standardized tests, focused too narrowly on a limited set of knowledge and basic skills and did not prepare students adequately, she says.

“We’ve been in a standardized testing rat race,” Coleman says. “We realized that what we were doing was not producing graduates with the skills [they will need].” “We want kids to think,” she adds. “That wasn’t being done. We wanted kids to be compliant and fill in bubbles.”

In order to shift to the new system, Danville teachers are developing and implementing new forms of assessment to measure students’ performance in the classroom throughout the year that break away from the fill-in-the-bubble model. Rather than ask students to choose one right answer on a multiple-choice test, these performance assessments ask students to perform tasks (such as conducting research or a science experiment), show how they arrived at solutions, and justify their conclusions. The assessments will be scored by teachers using agreed-on rubrics that provide clear statements of what constitutes different levels of mastery.

While not all districts are moving as far as Danville, many in Kentucky and other states will be introducing performance assessments in the next few years as they implement the Common Core State Standards. That’s because the standards set expectations that cannot be measured by conventional tests, says Joan L. Herman, director emeritus of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Performance assessment is critical to actually assess the important parts of the Common Core,” she says. “The Common Core is asking kids, in both English language arts and mathematics, to use evidence, to analyze problems, and to be able to reason. These are essential college- and career-readiness skills that are not addressed by multiple-choice testing.”

Yet the shift to performance assessment might pose a challenge to teachers who have been accustomed to teaching in an era when multiple-choice tests loomed large in education. But, says Coleman, it is a challenge her teachers are eager to take on. “Teachers have been so immersed in preparing kids for the [multiple-choice] state tests, that’s all they know,” she says. “But they are excited. They say, ‘This is what we want to do. This is why we went into teaching.’”

Waxing and Waning
Performance assessment is not new, of course. Teachers for years have assigned essay tests and science experiments, and many other countries rely on assessments that include extended performance tasks rather than multiple-choice questions.

There was a strong movement to implement new forms of assessment in the late 1980s and 1990s, especially in light of cognitive research that found students learned best when they were able to use their knowledge in more “authentic” situations, such as writing papers for public audiences, like city officials. Teachers and schools began to introduce a variety of performance tasks and measure student progress using portfolios and other methods.

State tests also began to incorporate performance-based components during that period. Vermont and Kentucky introduced portfolios to measure student performance in writing and mathematics, and states such as Maryland employed tests with extensive tasks that included group science experiments.

These approaches attracted critics, however. In some cases, the classroom tasks used by teachers placed a greater emphasis on engaging situations than on rigorous content knowledge and skills, says Herman. In one well-known example, based on the musical My Fair Lady, middle-school students were asked, “If Eliza danced all night, how many steps did she take?” Although the situation posed by the problem was amusing, it required basic computation skills rather than the more advanced mathematics taught in middle schools, Herman says.

In addition, the state tests were considered too expensive because they required human scorers and were deemed less reliable as measures of student learning than multiple-choice tests. When No Child Left Behind increased test requirements for states, a number of states dropped their performance components and relied almost exclusively on multiple-choice tests.

And, in response, teacher use of performance assessments in the classroom waned, because teachers tend to follow the tests on which they and their schools will be judged, says Herman. “We know from research that teachers teach what’s in important tests,” she says.
What’s Different This Time
This time around, the movement toward performance assessment has a number of advantages, Herman and others say. Perhaps most significantly, state tests that measure performance against the Common Core State Standards are scheduled to reinstate performance components, thus restoring the incentives for classroom performance assessments that the mostly multiple-choice tests took away.

The two consortia of states that are developing assessments to measure student performance against the standards—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a group of 19 states and the District of Columbia, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of 24 states—plan to include performance tasks as part of their assessment systems. PARCC is expected to include at least two tasks in English language arts, including a research task, as well as an extended mathematics problem. Smarter Balanced also plans to include tasks in reading, writing, and mathematics that will take one to two class periods to complete (see sidebar “A PARCC Sample Seventh-Grade Performance Task”).

In addition, the Common Core State Standards connect rigorous content knowledge with performance expectations, so the shortcomings exemplified by the My Fair Lady problem might be less of an issue in the future, Herman notes. “Kids are asked to read and analyze texts and to use what they read and know to mount an argument and explain their reasoning,” she says. “The rigor of what is asked is different” from previous attempts at performance assessment.

The consortia also plan to make available to teachers extensive banks of performance tasks, which will make it easier for teachers to put them in place, she and others note. And other organizations are likely to develop similar task banks, since the standards will be the same in nearly every state and so that a large number of teachers can draw from them.

The Scoring Issue
Scoring performance assessment has also improved since the 1990s, Herman notes. Extensive research has shown ways that assessments can be designed and implemented to ensure that teachers score them consistently and accurately. For example, with training, teachers can understand rubrics and apply them to student work so that there is overwhelming agreement among teachers on what proficient work looks like. In addition, school systems have created auditing and moderating systems to make sure teachers’ scores are consistent with the rubrics. And the experience in the United States and elsewhere with performance assessments shows that scoring such assessments can be a powerful professional development opportunity by enabling teachers to develop a deep understanding of the standards for student learning and ways that they can structure instruction to improve learning.

However, teachers and schools face the challenge of implementing performance assessment feasibly. Teachers must carve out time in a crowded curriculum to enable students to complete extensive projects, and then teachers must find the time to grade the papers and products that result from the projects. As teachers are well aware, scoring 150 assessments and providing feedback to students can be time-consuming.

In addition, teachers need support to use the assessments effectively to improve instruction, educators say. Although teachers have shown that they can implement performance tasks and measure student learning, research suggests that many teachers have difficulty providing effective feedback to students based on the assessments to help them improve their learning. “The real challenge is, based on what kids do, how do you get them to the next step to improve their performance?” Herman says.

One State’s Approach
In Danville, the district’s approach to helping teachers implement the new measures has been to allow teachers to try out new assessments at the end of units and as formative measures while the new diploma policy is being implemented. The district has sent teams of teachers to visit schools that use performance assessments extensively, such as High Tech High in San Diego and schools that are part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, to learn techniques from experienced teachers. And the district has also given teachers wide latitude to experiment.

“What I’ve tried hard to do is make it safe to take risks,” says Coleman, the district’s superintendent. “They feel prepared to take on the challenge because they know they’ll be supported. There’ll be lots of learning along the way.”

She adds that teachers are also willing to try out the assessments because the initiative is something they are doing themselves, rather than something imposed on them by the district.

The state of Kentucky, meanwhile, is also encouraging teachers to try out new approaches and has created an extensive infrastructure to support teachers and spread their learning across the state. Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards (the state board of education adopted it before it was formally released), and the state in 2012 became the first to administer a test intended to align to the new standards. As expected, scores on the new test appeared to show a drop in performance because not all schools had implemented the instructional changes the standards call for.

To implement the standards, the state has formed eight regional groups of educators who meet regularly and consider issues around implementation. Each region consists of about 20 districts, and each district sends three English language arts teachers, three mathematics teachers, school leaders, and district leaders. Thus, about 120 teachers meet once a month to take on implementation issues.

One issue that has been prominent in their discussions is the use of performance assessments, according to Karen Kidwell, the director of program standards for the Kentucky Department of Education. Teachers in the networks share tools to help them build performance assessments, try out the approaches in class, discuss what works and what doesn’t work, and make revisions.

“What we’ve found is that’s what makes teachers reach a higher level of quality,” Kidwell says. “They’ve had an opportunity to do it with colleagues and iron out problems.”

Overall, Kidwell says, the efforts have improved student learning, according to anecdotal reports, but the state has a way to go to strengthen all teachers’ abilities to use performance assessments. “Kids are engaged, and they are getting feedback that will improve their ultimate outcomes,” she says. “But it’s not at the scale we would like to see.”

Nationwide, Herman is optimistic that the Common Core State Standards can lead to a greater effective use of performance assessment—ultimately. “To the extent that teachers and schools are oriented toward the Common Core and know what’s involved, they are much better prepared to take this on,” she says. “That’s a big if, and it will take time.”

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and the author of Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice (Harvard Education Press 2013) and Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

For Further Information

For Further Information

L. Darling-Hammond and F. Adamson. Beyond Basic Skills: The Role of Performance Assessment in Achieving 21st Century Standards of Learning. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, 2010.

L. Darling-Hammond and B. Falk. Teacher Learning Through Assessment: How Student-Performance Assessments Can Support Teacher Learning. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2013.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers

A. C. Rodde and L. McHugh. Building the Missing Link Between the Common Core and Improved Learning. Boston: Bridgespan Group, 2013.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium